When Facebook bought WhatsApp in 2014, just 35 engineers were running the chat application that was used by close to half a billion people.

It’s the kind of story that shines the light on the magic of small teams.

And it’s true. Study after study shows smaller teams are great for a lot of reasons.

Typically, they outperform larger teams. Even better, small teams often have more independence, so they can move faster. There are fewer people to keep track of and getting everyone together doesn’t usually devolve into a scheduling nightmare.

Large corporations like Microsoft even get their teams to act like small, independent teams because they’re more productive.

And if you believe Amazon folklore, small teams are the secret to Jeff Besoz’s billion-dollar empire, according to this Guardian report:

“In the early days of Amazon, Jeff Bezos instituted a rule: every internal team should be small enough that it can be fed with two pizzas...A smaller team spends less time managing timetables and keeping people up to date, and more time doing what needs to be done.”

But if you’re managing a small team right now, you know that doesn’t mean it’s without challenges. You may struggle with things like limited resources, overworked staff, and disorganization.

To get the best results, you need to manage your team well.

Here are proven techniques to get the most out of your small team - backed by research and experience.

Purpose-driven Meetings for Small Teams

It’s no secret that most professionals have a shared contempt for meetings.

One survey found most people think half of all meetings are a waste of time, keeping them away from their real work.

Here’s the good news: small teams can use frequent, purposeful meetings to get things done quickly. A report from the Harvard Business Review found meetings with fewer attendants were more effective.

Small teams are also less prone to group-think, a concept from Irving Janis that describes the tendency for group members to agree with one another, killing creativity. This makes small gatherings great for finding varied solutions to business problems.

For small teams, this article on HackerNoon recommends:

“Have everyone share one good news story or their single biggest priority for the next 5 days.”

Through regular, candid conversations, you can generate new ideas, motivate the team around the business mission, and flag issues before they become all-consuming problems.

Plan and Prioritize Projects

No matter the size of your team, project planning goes hand in hand with business success.

In some ways, proper planning may be even more important for small teams. Several priorities are usually competing for your team members‘ time.

You probably don’t have a dedicated project manager; it’s up to everyone to manage tasks and their time.

But, this doesn’t always go smoothly. You may struggle to keep your team’s workload balanced and might only learn about problems once they start to block progress.

Here’s where project management can help.

Good project management keeps your team on the same page about the business’ most urgent tasks. Small teams don’t have endless resources to draw from. Prioritization helps you stay organized and focused on the most important work.

More small teams are turning to collaborative technologies to make it easier to work together and share ideas. This study found even within a multi-national company, smaller teams used more collaborative tools than larger teams in the same firm.

Research from Capterra showed businesses with teams of between one and five don’t typically use project management software. Instead, these organizations rely on spreadsheets to track progress.

But usually, the projects and processes start becoming more complex. And here’s where you should watch for “warning signs” that you may need to use automated project management, says Capterra:

  • Unclear task or project status
  • Poor collaboration
  • Information not being shared
  • Irregular execution of tasks

Reduce Context Switching

The United States Marines believe in the rule of three.

Three combat divisions.

Three soldiers in a rifle squad.

Three squads in a platoon.

Everything comes down to three, and the aim is simple: each person should limit their focus to three tasks.

Now it’s not unusual for staff on small teams to do work that falls outside their official job description. Product marketing may need to help with design. Content marketing might step in to do wireframes for the new website.

The upside is that your team gets a chance to learn about different parts of the business, but switching contexts is mentally draining.

In her 2009 research paper, titled Why Is It So Hard to Do My Work, Sophie Leroy found people who constantly switched from one task to another had lower productivity and decreased concentration.

Because we toggle from one task to the other, we battle with attention residue: we’re still thinking of the previous task when we switch to the next one.

From the abstract:

“As revealed by two experiments, people need to stop thinking about one task in order to fully transition their attention and perform well on another. Yet, results indicate it is difficult for people to transition their attention away from an unfinished task and their subsequent task performance suffers.”

If members of your team are juggling multiple tasks during the workday, try to help them split the working week so they can batch similar tasks on certain days.

Taking your cue from the Marines, minimize the tiring process of all-day context switching. Give staff the space to focus their time, energy, and attention on a limited number of tasks.

Self-development for Small Teams

While working across the business can be a blessing and a curse, it may guide your team towards opportunities for personal development.

Perhaps there’s room for a staff member to gain a new skill or complete a certification.

And encouraging this kind of growth is the hallmark of successful organizations, according to the Harvard Business Review.

“High-trust workplaces help people develop personally as well as professionally. Numerous studies show that acquiring new work skills isn’t enough; if you’re not growing as a human being, your performance will suffer. High-trust companies adopt a growth mindset when developing talent.”

If you’re managing a small team, consider a book stipend, so teams can buy books and possibly discuss what they’re learned at a monthly book club, like this company does.

Think of this as an investment into the business. Employees can use their new skills to take your business forward.

Improve Productivity with Automation

Most days small teams have a lot going on.

Repetitive tasks, routine admin, and follow-ups can dominate your workday and drain your productivity.

If only you had extra hands on deck.

Well, thanks to APIs (Application Programmable Interfaces) even small teams can access powerful tools to improve efficiency.

Today, businesses can choose from 22 000 APIs to help them do everything from managing social media, to offering live chats, and balancing their books.

For instance, with eversign your team can automate document management. Imagine the time- savings if your team didn’t have to chase paper documents or manually follow up with clients.

Small Teams Need Breaks, Too

The idea of a job as 9 to 5 is changing.

Most Americans now work an average of 46.7 hours per day. That’s almost a full extra workday, according to this Gallup study.

On top of that, the rise of smartphones means we’re more connected to work than ever before. Take this study as an example: Rescue Time found 26% of work was done on weekends and evenings.

It’s why it’s harder than ever to step away from the office. And most people never do.

Unused vacation in the U.S is at a 40-year high.

Now consider that for most people, work-life balance is one of the most universal concerns for employees.

The challenge with small teams is that people often work long hours, chipping away at that work-life balance. Still, there are limited resources and sometimes the only way small teams keep up is by working non-stop. Right?

Think again.

Time and time again analysis shows people are more creative and excited about the work they do after a break from the office.

More startups and tech companies have started offering staff unlimited vacation. Sounds great in theory, but some studies show employees with unlimited vacation take even fewer days off than staff with limited vacation.

HR experts suggest setting a culture that encourages breaks.  If you’re managing a small team, lead by example. Take time off and make it clear that employees shouldn’t check in with the office while they’re away.

When they do get back to work, employees will be rested and ready to achieve their best performance.

Set Your Small Team up for Success

By creating a culture that encourages creativity, makes space for focused work, and uses the right tools to improve productivity, your small team can achieve big results.

If you’re managing a small team, what tactics help you improve the way you operate?